How to Make Diversity Look Effortless
Costco, Crowded Subways, and Why New York City Persists
Before moving to New York, I was in town for a bachelor party. We were spending a long weekend upstate and shopping for supplies at a Costco in Queens—a relatively modest location tucked away on the East River. I had already planned on relocating sometime later that year but hadn’t even started packing.
I knew I had made the right decision somewhere between the canned goods and refrigerator section. In the span of a few aisles, we had encountered Spanish, Russian, Hindi, a Chinese dialect, and some Slavic language neither of us could discern. I started plotting my move in the time it took me to lower the five-dozen pack of eggs into our cart.
The American project is built on immigration. You might have heard lately many reiterate that “our strength lies in our diversity.” In a recent NPR-Ipsos poll, however, only 46% of respondents said “the U.S. has a ‘moral obligation’ to accept refugees.” It’s hard to see this as anything but a desire to maintain a status quo—and deny the very quality that makes this country so unique.
Conventional wisdom contends that Trump was elected, in part, because of his hardline stance on illegal immigration. Needless to say, his thinking on this issue is muddled (as it is in most areas). He argues that foreigners are both taking American jobs and exploiting public services. It should go without saying that, logically, one cannot have his free lunch and take a lunch hour too.
Contrary to popular opinion, the data show that immigrants create jobs. They also reinvigorate economically depressed cities. They generate tax revenue for local, state, and federal governments. Immigrants even vote Republican on occasion. Mostly, they mind their own business.
Trump recently suggested that the U.K. is “losing its culture” to immigration. He may as well have used literal air quotes—for we all know what “losing its culture” really means. Any argument about buoying the majority (i.e., maintaining the culture) by barring a minority quickly crosses into the familiar territory, as it were, of racism. After all, protectionism is just a polite word for xenophobia. And in the recent debate about America’s system, “illegal” has come to represent all immigration. As such, the U.S. is at risk of losing its culture—precisely because of Trump’s white nationalist policies.
Nevertheless, New York City persisted.
New Yorkers not only understand the benefits of immigration but most of us are immigrants ourselves. In fact, 40% of us are foreign born. And, like me, many migrated from other American cities. We left our hometowns looking for opportunity, inspiration, fame, or wealth. Or perhaps we sought the anonymity of living among 8.6 million other like minds.
Most, also like me, moved here precisely for the diversity evident in that Costco in Queens.
America’s largest city is one of the world’s most effortlessly diverse. Consider a morning commute on the subway. Hundreds cram on each train to get wherever they need to go (likely to earn payroll taxes that benefit red states in the process). On any ride, you might have the stiff corner of someone’s purse sticking your ribs, hear the noise-bleed of someone’s earbuds, whiff the treacle of another’s perfume, and feel the sweaty edge of a strange hand graze yours—all within the time it takes to travel between stations and in any racial or ethnic configuration one can imagine.
Of course, I don’t mean to imply that New York is bursting forth with naïve love and compassion. The truth is, we don’t even necessarily like each other for our differences but rather dislike each other for our similarities. Anyone can annoy you on the subway by standing too close, eating smelly food, or “manspreading”—regardless of background or identity.
But then, anyone can also surprise you.
New York demonstrates not the American dream but rather an America awake. It is a worldly vision realistic about its own fantasies. Dreams are hallucinations, a collection of images and emotions that we experience passively. Any coherence is always retrospective and thus a fiction that reveals how the dreamer wants to see the world—not necessarily how it really is. New York is no dream. It’s a present-tense, often frustrating expression of humanity working toward the shared goal of individual freedom. We live in New York because we think we can do better here than anywhere else, together.
Again, some are chasing stardom. Others come to make bagfuls of cash. And, sadly, others are escaping their pasts—whether the small-scale cruelty of an abusive family or the large-scale brutality of a home government. New Yorkers don’t feel duty-bound to welcome everyone. We do so without fanfare. Put simply: learn to swipe your Metrocard and you’re in.
We know our lives are made richer by the difference around us. And we celebrate it in small selfish ways—by eating at “ethnic” restaurants or cribbing another’s style, for example. We do it by sleeping in on Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr, the Asian Lunar New Year, or Ash Wednesday because parking rules are suspended. (Think about that the next time you have to move your car on Diwali.)
New York City is one of the world’s great cities because it reflects the world. Diversity isn’t just a quality of a healthy culture but also an essential feature. Take biology as a metaphor. Species thrive on diverse sources of genetic code. Purity does not refine a group but rather compromises its viability.
New York City thrives because it is a city of “others.” And our president projects a thinly-veiled fear when he laments the “loss” of culture to immigration. It is, of course, an irrational paranoia. His conviction, like that of the white nationalists with which he identifies, is that the mere presence of another threatens both your physical and psychological autonomy.
The weak exclude others to protect the self. And to bar the other from the external is to annihilate them in the internal. It’s the old children’s game of peekaboo: you’re invisible if I cannot see you. But the only real threat to culture is an inability to maintain one’s internal integrity. Difference is a danger only when your own spirit is so fragile that a mere idea can destabilize the whole.
Contrary to any conservative desire to maintain the status quo, the capacity to digest new ideas reflects a strength and resilience. Rigidly clinging to an idealized past, on the other hand, betrays a fear that you won’t survive change.
In psychological terms, we might talk about the permeability of one’s “psychic skin.” This is the symbolic barrier that protects an individual from external threats to the ego. It also refers to one’s capacity to maintain his or her mental coherence—and avoid public breakdowns. When this system is compromised, one might, for instance, self-sooth with physical objects like a heavy blanket or favorite sweater. The nationalist worldview is one where exclusion of the other and ethnic purity is a form of safety blanket.
To Trump, the other is a bogeyman. Children, for example, fear the monster under the bed because they’re not yet able to tolerate the monsters within them. But once we develop a more coherent ego, we come to realize that the biggest danger to ourselves is us (and not, say, some poor Guatemalan seeking asylum). The bogeyman is not the other trying to break into our country but rather the ugliness we’re too afraid to recognize in ourselves. The stronger one’s sense of self, the easier it is to simply let that fear go.
And yet, Trump’s worldview cannot banish the monster because it’s a useful distraction from the ugliness that lurks within his protectionist policies.
But New York City embraces the strangers that knock at the proverbial door. We’e a community that invites life’s complexities by relinquishing an anxiety about the unfamiliar. New York attracts people who believe that diverse ideas and experiences only make them richer—philosophically, emotionally, or monetarily.
To be clear, New York is not some egalitarian utopia. This is, after all, where Eric Garner was killed for selling cigarettes and Kalief Browder languished in Rikers for months on erroneous charges and later hanged himself. New York is far from perfect. Nevertheless, it welcomes strangers because it accepts ambiguity—and, like its inhabitants, strives toward a better, albeit uncertain day ahead.
My New York immigration story is similar to that of the millions before me. It’s one where the fear of the unknown is nowhere near as strong as the promise of opportunity. Of course, I had a particular wind at my back—having hit the genetic lottery of being born a white man in America. Nevertheless, New York is all the more beautiful because it resists homogeneity. It thrives on our collective effort—a testament to the fact that it takes a lot of hard work to make diversity look this effortless.